Ellis was one of the best of a generation of modern-day players inspired by Charlie Christian, probably the most influential electric guitar player in jazz history and considered by many critics to have been the founding father of electric jazz guitar. Herb Ellis played with the same wonderfully easy and fluid lead style as Christian, but also delivered a strong driving rhythm style that became a trademark of his performances and recordings.
Les Paul, no less, once said of Herb Ellis, “If you’re not swinging, he’s gonna make you swing. Of the whole bunch of guys who play hollowbody guitar, I think Herb Ellis has got the most drive.”
While studying string bass at North Texas State, Ellis heard Benny Goodman’s jazz guitarist, Charlie Christian, for the first time and chose, instead, to become a guitar player. Lack of funds forced Ellis to drop out of college in 1941, so he went on the road with several bands, eventually joining Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra in 1943, where he began to get noticed by the jazz press. He then joined the Jimmy Dorsey band and later formed Soft Winds with Lou Carter and John Frigo. Their most popular number, “Detour Ahead,” was recorded by Billie Holiday and became a jazz standard.
Oscar Peterson saw one of the Soft Winds shows in Buffalo in 1951 and invited Ellis to a late-night jam session. A year later, Peterson called on Ellis to replace Barney Kessell in the Oscar Peterson Trio. Ellis and the trio also played on a host of jazz cuts for the Verve label, including albums by Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and those famous Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong duets. Not many guitarists could keep up with the musical speed of Peterson, but Ellis’s fluidity on lead and his driving rhythm playing was a perfect foil for the piano great. Ellis told Steve Voce of the Independent newspaper, “Playing your own solos was the easiest part, that was the ice cream. But playing the backgrounds that Oscar wanted when he was playing was most hard…for me, he was the greatest piano player in the world and he certainly was the fastest.”
Ellis enjoyed a long stint with Ella Fitzgerald and also recorded a number of solo albums, among them Nothing but the Blues and Thank You, Charlie Christian. In 1962, tired of life on the road, Ellis moved to Los Angeles to work as a studio and TV musician. But with batteries re-charged, he embarked on a 1974 concert tour alongside Barney Kessel and Charlie Byrd as the “Guitar Greats.” The trio toured consistently for several years until Ellis called it a day in 1989.
Ellis recorded regularly for Concord Records as both a session musician and a featured artist. Two of his most significant albums were his own Soft and Mellow and saxophonist Richie Kamuca’s Drop Me off in Harlem.
While Ellis slowed down in later years, he recorded a remarkable western swing album in 1992, Texas Swings, a project that featured a set of swing classics and included appearances by country great Willie Nelson and fiddle legend Johnny Gimble.
In 1998, Ellis was celebrated at the JVC jazz festival in New York with a series of tributes and the next year he released Burnin’ on the Acoustic Music label.
“As jazz has changed through the years and different styles have developed, Ellis always remained true to the form he played from the beginning,” said Neil Portnow, President and CEO of The Recording Academy. “The jazz world has lost a great musician, and we extend our deepest sympathies to his family, friends, and all who enjoyed his work.”
Throughout his career, Ellis favored Gibson guitars. His own 1949 ES-175 was such an iconic instrument that Gibson chose to immortalize it with the signature ES-165 Herb Ellis, which became one of the company’s most popular jazz guitars.
Gibson Guitar Chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz paid tribute to the jazz legend on his passing: “Gibson has lost a good friend, and the world has lost a great guitar player,”